Courage in Creativity

Dave Baggett

[Editor's note: These thoughts were first presented recently at The Virginia Festival of the Book. We thank Dave for allowing us to publish them here.]

I?m inclined to think that in persons perfectly socialized and psychologically healthy, there would be very little need to show courage to be creative. They?d be operating on all thrusters with a healthy conception of their talents and gifts, and shortcomings and limitations too, and creativity in such persons not inordinately animated by fear or debilitating self-esteem would come rather naturally?or so I?m inclined to think. Now, even in cases like that, I would imagine some people for various reasons may have more creativity than others; temperaments and talents aren?t distributed equally. But still I?d expect that creativity would be operative in such persons to at least some degree.

The problem of course is that nobody is perfectly socialized and psychologically healthy to the maximal degree. All of us have issues and doubts and fears?again, some more than others. So the aspect of creativity that I?d like to focus on for a few minutes with you is the part of it that our limitations and liabilities necessitate, namely, courage. The courage of creativity is something we perhaps too easily overlook. We need courage to overcome our fears. Without fears, there?s no courage, nor any need for courage. If I have no fear of walking through a cemetery late at night, I don?t need courage to do it, and my doing it displays no courage. Courage gets us over the hump, as it were. And we are all pretty humpy.

When it comes to creativity, it seems to me that we?re particularly sensitive to our liabilities and weaknesses. Think about it: the standard sorts of examples of creativity?artistic expressions like painting or play, poem, or novel writing, acting, music?in each case the performance in some way or other reflects the persons doing the action at a fairly deep level. We get at least a peek into the private side or subconscious or less discussed parts of their psyche. It makes us vulnerable when we put ourselves out there like that. And that takes courage, including the willingness to take risks, like the risk of falling flat on our face.

In fact, though, creativity can be found in areas beyond the arts?.or perhaps a better way of putting it is that we can conceive of a much more expansive list of areas in which we can perform artistically. Remember Dr. King?s words: ?If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry.? Inspiring words, but revelatory, I think, of a certain truth: that we can express creativity and excellence, art and imagination, in whatever it is we do in life if we but understand it in the right sort of way. I don?t think, in other words, that creativity is the exclusive province of some narrow range of ?artists? or ?writers,? no way. We can all be creative, and probably more creative than we currently are.

What makes creativity a good thing, though? Why is it something to aspire to? Theologians might give an account according to which we?ve been made in the image of God, the original Creator, and so creativity is at the center of who and what we are and are meant to be: creative agents, whose creativity is animated by love and joy and intended to elicit love and joy.

A psychologist and philosopher like William James might, in partial contrast, suggest that as conscious beings we are essentially selecting agencies responsible all the time for all manner of creative impositions of form; this is what consciousness is all about. In contrast to unthinking metal filings stuck up against a piece of paper when a magnet is positioned on the other side, we as human beings have a destination and then find a thousand and one ways to get there if we have to. We can be almost endlessly creative in altering the means to our goals?I?m always reminded of this when I listen to students constructing excuses for missing class?and we can also be creative in the goals we choose to achieve. Is winning that match all important, even it means sacrifice of equanimity or the straining of a friendship? How about making the goal the enjoyment of the match instead? Is getting that A the most important thing? How about developing a love for ideas and learning and letting the chips fall where they may when it comes to grades? We all need reminders to quit sweating the small stuff and obsessing over peripherals. Sometimes it?s a failure of our creativity when we don?t change our goal as we should.

So we sift and we sort, we include and exclude and shape and fashion and by intentional effort thus forge our view of the world and our understanding of its import. We?re all of us inveterate fictionalists when it comes to weaving the story of our lives into a coherent narrative. So creativity on this score, again, is at the heart of who we are as conscious persons, and it gives us the chance to tap into our deepest, most fulfilling potentials to create something uniquely ours that distinctively reflects our personalities and characters.

But again, in the face of possible rejection, of our fears and cognizance of liabilities and limitations, it takes courage for most of us to try being creative. Let me give you a quick example from the realm of academia. William James predicted that with the professionalization of philosophy, over time originality would suffer. So much primacy would be placed on acquaintance with the literature, say, that students would often lose their willingness to try developing their own unique and distinctive voices and ideas. Professional pressure can exacerbate the humps. Now, acquaintance with literature can be a good thing, of course, but James was trying to say that we need to watch out that we don?t shut people down who have something important to say by assigning such overwhelming primacy to knowledge of what other people have said.

Perhaps an even clearer example is the way we can too easily undercut the educational process of the young by not listening carefully enough to what they have to say. How easy it is to shut kids down, to communicate to them that because they haven?t been around very long, and because they have so much to learn, that they ought to quit exploring their own ideas and stop asking questions. So easily they?ll internalize those ideas and clam up. We?d all be inclined to say this is a bad thing, most of the time anyway, but it?s something that happens every day in a thousand ways. What?s needed is more intentional effort to ask kids what they think, how they?re processing stuff, how they see it all, not to convey to them the impression that they can?t be wrong, but to free them up to realize their potentials and find their own voice. Otherwise the intellectual curiosity and the willingness to risk being creative can just begin to die out.

Neither intellectual curiosity nor creativity in children needs to be generated; they just need not to be snuffed out and extinguished; kids with even a modicum of healthy socialization have them in abundance naturally. What kid doesn't want to know "Why?" to everything or doesn't like to sing?

There is of course the opposite danger of pride and hubris, thinking oneself better than one is. Sometimes this reaches epidemic proportions in our culture?in which, say, 80 percent of students think they?re above average. And that?s not what I?m encouraging. I think we need courage and a healthy level of confidence to be creative. Courage is consistent with humility, and humility is consistent with a healthy and judicious confidence. Aristotle often spoke of the need to achieve the golden mean, the right balances. When it comes to this issue, there?s arrogant pride and overreaching hubris on one side, and the self-effacement and diffidence that goes far beyond humility on the other. The right balance is healthy confidence, judicious courage, a properly open humility of self assessment that involves valuing sources of knowledge and power outside ourselves, a willingness to take some risks?.not to be rash, but not to be too timid to take risks either. The sort of courage I think is so often crucial for the exercise of creativity is consistent with a proper, healthy humility, but it is not consistent with the self-effacing diffidence that?s resulted from having been shut down and silenced too much too early. We can believe we have a distinctive voice and a unique and important contribution to make without thinking that ours is the only important voice or that our contribution is so definitive that, once expressed, it?ll bring to a screeching halt all other contributions and voices.

In fact?and this is my last point?when we see the creativity of another?like the artistry and consummate finesse of a Roger Federer on the tennis court, we have a choice. As indulgent and egocentric as it is, we can mope that we?ll never play like that, or more positively and constructively we can be inspired to go out and play better, even if we realize we?ll never get to that level, and to strive for excellence in our own areas of expertise that will in some way resemble his in tennis. When we see excellence and creativity, it always ought to inspire us to do something.

William James at one point talks about those people who obsessively read novels with such sympathy for the fictional characters they encounter there, but whose emotions, thus aroused, have no bearing on how they treat people in the real world around them. He worries about the person who experiences excellence in a play or concert performance, and leaves that experience at a level of the purely passively aesthetic, not goaded to go and do something excellent himself. James writes of this danger in these words: "One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one?s self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world?speaking genially to one?s grandmother, or giving up one?s seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers?but let it not fail to take place.?

In other words, as we experience the creativity and excellence of others around us in the world, we ought to seek always to be moved ourselves to go and do likewise, or as likewise as we're able, on however small a scale, to improve, if only by a small bit, the quality of life around us.

Be courageous, be creative, and be stimulated to good deeds by any you see around you. That's the path we're meant to tread each day.

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